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FBI snooping worries privacy advocates

By PETE YOST
July 30, 2010

Sen. Patrick Leahy (AP)Invasion of privacy in the Internet age. Expanding the reach of law enforcement to snoop on e-mail traffic or on Web surfing. Those are among the criticisms being aimed at the FBI as it tries to update a key surveillance law.

With its proposed amendment, is the Obama administration merely clarifying a statute or expanding it? Only time and a suddenly on guard Congress will tell.

Federal law requires communications providers to produce records in counterintelligence investigations to the FBI, which doesn’t need a judge’s approval and court order to get them.

They can be obtained merely with the signature of a special agent in charge of any FBI field office and there is no need even for a suspicion of wrongdoing, merely that the records would be relevant in a counterintelligence or counterterrorism investigation. The person whose records the government wants doesn’t even need to be a suspect.

The bureau’s use of these so-called national security letters to gather information has a checkered history.

The bureau engaged in widespread and serious misuse of its authority to issue the letters, illegally collecting data from Americans and foreigners, the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded in 2007. The bureau issued 192,499 national security letter requests from 2003 to 2006.

Weathering that controversy, the FBI has continued its reliance on the letters to gather information from telephone companies, banks, credit bureaus and other businesses with personal records about their customers or subscribers — and Internet service providers.

That last source is the focus of the Justice Department’s push to get Congress to modify the law.

The law already requires Internet service providers to produce the records, said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Justice Department’s national security division. But he said as written it also causes confusion and the potential for unnecessary litigation as some Internet companies have argued they are not always obligated to comply with the FBI requests.

A key Democrat on Capitol Hill, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, wants a timeout.

The administration’s proposal to change the Electronic Communications Privacy Act “raises serious privacy and civil liberties concerns,” Leahy said Thursday in a statement.

“While the government should have the tools that it needs to keep us safe, American citizens should also have protections against improper intrusions into their private electronic communications and online transactions,” said Leahy, who plans hearings in the fall on this and other issues involving the law.

Critics are lined up in opposition to what the Obama administration wants to do.

“The FBI is playing a shell game,” says Al Gidari, whose clients have included major online companies, wireless service providers and their industry association.

“This is a huge expansion” of the FBI’s authority “and burying it this way in the intelligence authorization bill is really intended to bury it from scrutiny,” Gidari added.

Boyd, the Justice spokesman, said the changes being proposed will not allow the government to obtain or collect new categories of information; rather it simply seeks to clarify what Congress intended when the statute was amended in 1993, he argued.

Critics, however, point to a 2008 opinion by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel which found that the FBI’s reach with national security letters extends only as far as getting a person’s name, address, the period in which they were a customer and the numbers dialed on a telephone or to that phone.

The problem the FBI has been having is that some providers, relying on the 2008 Justice opinion — issued during the Bush administration — have refused to turn over Internet records such as information about who a person e-mails and who has e-mailed them and information about a person’s Web surfing history.

To deal with the issue, there’s no need to change the law since the FBI has the authority to obtain the same information with a court order issued under a broad section of the Patriot Act, said Gregory Nojeim, director of the Project on Freedom, Security and Technology at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit Internet privacy group.

The critics say the proposed change would allow the FBI to remove federal judges and courts from scrutiny of its requests for sensitive information.

“The implications of the proposal are that no court is deciding whether even that low standard of `relevance’ is met,” said Nojeim. “The FBI uses national security letters to find not just who the target of an investigation e-mailed, but also who those people e-mailed and who e-mailed them.”

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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6 Responses to FBI snooping worries privacy advocates

  1. Carl Nemo

    July 31, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    “A key Democrat on Capitol Hill, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, wants a timeout.” …extract from article

    Senator Leahy is the poster child for seemingly ‘concerned’ legislators, except when push comes to shove, they always rollover when it comes to reining in these seemingly out of control agencies and their surveillance methods.

    Carl Nemo **==

  2. DejaVuAllOver

    July 31, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    Dang straight, Carl. Leahy seems to have studied (or partially authored) the Obama Manual for Effective Political Doubletalk, published by Demonic Press, Inc.

    • Carl Nemo

      August 1, 2010 at 9:57 pm

      Thanks DejaVuAllOver for your supportive thoughts concerning my commentary.

      In fact, I’ve been remiss lately in not coming onboard and interfacing with your comments to this site; always spot-on I must add.

      Your presence is valued at least my me. : )

      Carl Nemo **==

  3. wojinsky

    August 1, 2010 at 1:52 am

    So, the FBI wants to snoop on us, as if that is not being done already by the NSA and Google. Of top of the Patriot Act and other American jingoisms.

    So, we have unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, sucking billions of dollars and killing thousand of American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani lives, many of them innocent and not connected to Al-Qaeda nor the Taliban.

    So, jobs are being outsourced to foreign countries were labor is cheaper and this is being done by American companies that then cry that they cannot find any qualified American workers.

    So, we cannot have a public option for health care because it would ruin the for-profit insurance companies that already deny us coverage and jack up our premiums.

    So we cannot find jobs because too many illegal aliens are taking jobs that many Americans now want although they didn’t want them before.

    Etc. ETc.

    Looks the solution to these problems is to NOT live in the U.S. There are other countries where, they have egalitarian governments that don’t spy on their own citizenry, where jobs are not being outsourced at an incredible rate, where health care is subsidized by taxes but when you need to see a doctor there is no charge at the time of service, where they are not fighting two losing wars wasting billions of dollars that could go to helping the millions of unemployed and underemployed who lost their jobs to corporate outsourcing.

  4. Eve

    August 1, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Kabuki theater at it’s finest.
    These “representatives” are all great actors (most of them former lawyers)
    and the populace … apathetic and ignorant.

    Wings of the same vulture, pretending to be a dove.

  5. Carl Nemo

    August 1, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Thanks Eve for your succinct analysis and supportive thoughts on the situation.

    If I recall just a few days ago there was an article relating that FBI agents “cheated” on an exam related to their continuing education program concerning law enforcement guidelines. To me this indicates this agency has degenerated as our government too into a bunch of “slobs” with a criminal bent and scofflaw mentality concerning proper enforcement of the statutes. This is not the FBI that J. Edgar founded, but is being managed by NWO friendlly, nation destroying , politically motivated, toady sycophants such as their current director, Robert S. Mueller, III & Co.

    I thought I’d post the FBI’s site link so people can have a knee slapping “hoot” concerning their mission. Scroll down to who monitors the FBI and one will see in short order its a closed end loop of citizen non-friendly Congressional sources that have have a vested interest in keeping their “jackboots” on our collective necks. In fact most of the mission statement is simply a feelgood canard to say the least.

    http://www.fbi.gov/aboutus/faqs/faqsone.htm

    Carl Nemo **==